I'm dead of lung cancer at age 69, after 34 years of not smoking, anything. It's one of life's little editorial comments. What an eye-opener life turned out to be!
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Born to H. Gould Curtis and Alice Turner Curtis in Connecticut in 1940, I was a shy, unsure kid who finally ran away from dancing school at age 12 to prove to myself that I had some guts. But my parents made me write a letter of apology to the dancing school teacher on my Boy Scout stationary. That was the start of a long learning curve.
At Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. (1955-58), I was prodded into positions of leadership that I didn't want, and I plodded along as a ho-hum student for three years. So, it was with great surprise and some suspicion that I learned of my acceptance to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. ('58-'62). But there I began to understand that learning is really quite a fancy adventure.
In the U.S. Army ('62-'63), I learned about the pros and cons of hierarchy and about tail-numbing boredom. While teaching at the American School in Switzerland in Lugano ('63-'65), and hanging out with the artworks of Europe and traveling alone through Italy, France, Portugal and Spain, I discovered the intriguing idiosyncrasies of other cultures and how to embrace them all.
Earning an M.A. from the Writing Seminars ('66) at Johns Hopkins University opened the door for me to accept a creative writing teaching position at Montana State University ('67-'70). Well-tutored in academic pettiness and politics after three years of teaching there, I was promoted, and I resigned, leaving with five other instructors to start an experimental school in New Mexico. That experiment in communal living and experiential learning taught me that I was not a groupie kind of guy.
Back in Bozeman, I took a job loading former MSU students and colleagues on the Alpine Lift at Bridger Bowl for a winter ('71). Their curious, dismayed and embarrassed reactions to my apparent "fall from grace" became an amusing study in socio-psychology.
After two more years of teaching ('72-'73) at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, I finally realized that I was really a good student, not a good teacher. And it was at CRMS that I met Linda Sullivan, the woman who became my lifelong love, closest confidant, best friend, breadwinner and wife.
We settled into the log cabin that we built and hammered on for decades in South Cottonwood Canyon. Linda became a private voice teacher, the mom of our three great kids - Patrick, Molly and Will (Oh, what things I learned from them!) - and the artistic director of Intermountain Opera. I established a career as a freelance writer, writing articles on camping and backpacking, hunting and fishing, natural history and the environment, and arts and architecture for national and regional magazines.
Given my student temperament, it was the best poor-paying career I could have chosen. Article assignments from editors were like homework assignments that required researching, interviewing, going out in the field and collecting information and anecdotes for essays that I'd try to organize and present in engaging ways. It was a process I loved and struggled with during my entire career. It was forever challenging, never easy, and always fun.
Writing and living gave me a great education, but living with cancer was my postgraduate work. It taught me how to be humble and hopeful, how to laugh at the inevitable, how to be accepting and defiant in the same breath and how to run away from dancing school, again and again. My loving family, great friends, caring doctors and nurses, even charming no-goodniks and serendipitous strangers, were my best teachers, revealing that offerings of hope, prayers and kindnesses transcend countries of origin, religions of choice and ideologies of preference. We're all in this together. No matter where we're from or what we believe, we will finally reach unanimity in our conclusions.
So, my homework is done. I took the final exam. I graduated. It's time to celebrate!
At the request of the family, in lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Bozeman Deaconess Cancer Center, 931 Highland Blvd. Suite 3200, Bozeman, MT 59715; or to The Intermountain Opera Association, P.O. Box 37, Bozeman, MT 59771.
A celebration of Sam's life will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Beall Park Center, 415 N. Bozeman Ave.
Condolences and memories may be shared with the family at www.dahlcares.com.
Dahl Funeral Chapel
300 Highland Boulevard
Bozeman, MT 59715
Published in Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Dec. 18, 2009